On this day in 1649 the king was executed by order of the English Parliament, having been handed over to them by the Army of the Scottish Parliament, in return for some £100, 000.
This was the third time in Scotland’s long and illustrious history that the anointed monarch had met their death under an English blade. At least in the case of James IV it was on the battlefield. Whereas with Mary, as with Charles now, it was done on the executioner’s block. An outcome disguised, however thinly, as the lawful conclusion of the just implementation of due legal process.
Charles is led to his execution
In May 1646 Charles had surrendered himself to the Scots’ Army which was besieging Newark. Since the destruction of the Royalist army at the Battle of Naseby the previous year, which had tipped the military balance decisively in Parliament’s favour, Charles had been holed up in the besieged city Of Oxford. He had escaped from there in April, with no real idea of what course of action to take. Eventually he had thrown himself on the tender mercies of the Covenanting Army, in the absence of any real alternative as the remaining military options in Scotland and in Ireland were without any prospect of success. The memorable Year of Victories campaign led by Bonnie Dundee’s kinsman, the Marquis of Montrose, having finally run out of steam at Philiphaugh the previous November.
Charles Stuart’s belief was probably that the Scots would see him first and foremost as King of Scots and succour him. And that their religious convictions would be subservient to this greater loyalty. The Covenanters, for their part, assumed that he had come to them in recognition that taking the Covenant was the only option now open to him and so he was prepared to sign up. In this both parties were deeply mistaken. The Covenanting leadership nevertheless bent with a will to the task of persuading their king of the merits of their beliefs and he was solemnly preached at many times a day for the next few months by such fine examples of tolerance and broad outlook as Alexander Henderson.
But Charles Stuart had not come to the ruin of; his dynasty, the prospects of his native land or the hopes of his loyal subjects by even considering the possibility of compromise of his divine right to rule or the abandonment of his pursuit of what he felt was in his own interests. And so the months of his captivity passed with no progress on either side.
The English Parliament worked steadily towards their own clearly understood goals which were to see the king handed over to them and the Scottish Army return whence it came, so that it might pose no further threat to their security and cease to be a continuing drain on their finances in supporting it in position.
If his nine months of captivity by the Scots had seemed a tortured and unending period of non progress, the next two years would better that. Once in the hands of the English Parliament he was held in various locations as the relationship between Parliament and the New Model Army dissolved in rancorous recrimination and sectarian disagreement.
Charles sought to capitalise on these differences, unsuccessfully. There was an abortive escape attempt and he managed to sign a secret treaty with those Covenanted Scots who were prepared to see him restored to the throne of Scotland as long as Presbyterianism was then imposed on his English subjects for the next three years.
This treaty, the Engagement of ill-renown, led to a full scale invasion of England by another Scottish Army under the Duke of Hamilton., which was crushed at Preston by Cromwell’s notable cross Pennine flank attack.
The First Battle of Preston (1648). The Scottish Army is crushed by Cromwell.
By December 1648 the English Parliament was happy to continue negotiations with the king probably for ever. Cromwell, however, strengthened by his recent military success against the Scots, organised the arrest of those members of Parliament who were unsupportive of the New Model Army. The Rump Parliament was formed by the remainder and thus an effective military coup d’état was carried out.
Charles was duly tried for treason against his English Parliament. Subjecting the monarch to a criminal trial had never been attempted before, neither in England nor in Scotland. The Chief Justices of the three common law courts of England each considered such an indictment as unlawful. The Rump Parliament declared itself capable of legislating alone on the issue and promptly passed the necessary act declaring royal assent unnecessary. After three days the process was concluded and the guilty verdict handed down.
The Trial of Charles I
And so at 2 pm on 30th January the king was publicly beheaded in Whitehall. In a departure from the established custom of the times where the severed head (and limbs) of executed traitors were publicly displayed for many years, pour encourager les autres, Charles head was sewn back onto his body and the corpse promptly embalmed.